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Visiting Huahine in French Polynesia on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Visiting Huahine in French Polynesia on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Live From Paul Gauguin: Why We’re Loving Exploring French Polynesia by Cruise Ship

Visiting Huahine in French Polynesia on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Visiting Huahine in French Polynesia on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust

Last updated
Jan 3, 2024

Read time
7 min read

(11 a.m. EDT) – Dawn slides into my cruise ship cabin before 5:30 a.m., a regular occurrence in French Polynesia, where sunrise and sunset times stay stable so close to the equator. Looking out, I see the ship approaching the island du jour, the latest in a destination where they either rise from the South Pacific with lush green mountains or sit low to the ground offering endless coral beaches.

I’m partway through an 11-day cruise on Paul Gauguin that encompasses the Society Islands – a grouping that includes the marquee islands of Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea – as well as the more remote Tuamotus.

The trip was not our original itinerary (more to come on that), but I’ve discovered what so many in-the-know travelers already know: Small-ship cruises are the easiest way to explore the many facets of the enchanting French Polynesia archipelago.

Paul Gauguin has been sailing French Polynesia for 25 years. While the line – once independent, now owned by the French cruise company Ponant – only has one 330-passenger vessel, that specialization works in its favor. French Polynesia is the heartbeat of the ship, with the destination informing almost every aspect of the experience.

Here are the reasons we’re loving the cruise ship experience through the islands:

Itineraries Can Be Adjusted, Depending on Weather

Paul Gauguin at the dock in Raiatea (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Paul Gauguin at the dock in Raiatea (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

I figured we’d have some rain for our trip; the rainy season does begin in November, lasting until March. Still, I was dismayed when the forecast before my trip called for not just rain, but serious storms in the Society and Cook islands, where we originally were scheduled to sail.

Luckily, Paul Gauguin’s captain came up with a backup plan. Instead of a blustery trip to the Cook Islands, where the winds and waves might prevent us from tendering, the captain set our sights north – to the Tuamotus. These islands are some of the oldest in the French Polynesia, so much so that the mountainous centers have long sunk, leaving coral atolls surrounding lagoons full of tropical fish.

The change was a win-win. Our days in the Tuamotu islands of Fakarava and Rangiroa were gloriously sunny, with opportunities to snorkel, bike and relax. The revised itinerary also gave us a day in Raiatea, known as the most sacred site in French Polynesia. As a bonus, passengers were able to witness the start of the Hawaiki Nui Va’a outrigger canoe race, a multiday, multi-island endurance test using the traditional Polynesian transport.

I couldn’t help but compare the flexibility of our ship to the famed resorts of French Polynesia. Resorts can’t move when the weather is bad. Paul Gauguin can. (Not convinced? See how cruising in French Polynesia compares with pricey resort stays.)

Different Islands Have Different Personalities – and Different Highlights

E-bike excursion on Fakarava with Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
E-bike excursion on Fakarava with Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

This trip marked my first to French Polynesia, and I have to admit, the details of each island were a bit sketchy to me before I arrived. I really had no idea what made Moorea different from Bora Bora, let alone which one was best for what activity.

Through shore excursions and tours – and the guides have been unusually good on this trip – the individual islands have come into focus.

On Huahine, local expert Paul Atallah gave us a sprawling, yet entertaining, treatise on Polynesian life, both current and historical. The beachy atoll of Fakarava is perhaps one of the more laidback places we’ve ever visited. Snorkeling the Aquarium in Rangiroa is a must for those who love underwater life. And I felt a chill when our guide described the warrior tests that took place in Raiatea, the spiritual home of the far-flung Polynesia diaspora that includes New Zealand, Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and, of course, Hawaii.

The sheer number of islands we’ve seen also makes me want to come back and explore more. The Marquesas, for example, are the original home of the famed Polynesian tattoos. Tonga and Fiji beckon. Paul Gauguin has opened up the geography of this part of the world to me; I’m hoping adventures here have just begun.

The Paul Gauguin Ship Has Been Refreshed

Pool on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Pool on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Beyond the incredible destination, the ship itself is a lovely draw. Ponant bought the line in 2019 and put Paul Gauguin into drydock for a complete refurbishment in 2021. The result combines the light and bright colors of a Polynesian resort with gleaming nautical wood finishes.

The refurb also shifted the ship’s entertainment vibe. The casino is gone, replaced by a reading nook. At the same time, sound and light systems were updated in the Le Grand Salon theater as well as the La Palette bar, with improvements made to the dance floors (which have been used on our trip). The ship also leaned into its namesake, making 150 Paul Gauguin paintings available in a virtual museum.

A comfy pool deck is a must for any warm weather destination, and I’m impressed with the variety of loungers and seating that Paul Gauguin has, all new since the refurb. The three dining rooms also received upgrades, with each reflecting French Polynesia in various ways (La Veranda leans elegant, while the al fresco Le Grill has more tropical touches).

Balcony cabin on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Balcony cabin on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

While I wish the refurb could have added USB ports in the cabins, the beds are so extremely comfy, we’re fine putting our phones across the room and falling asleep, instead of endlessly doom scrolling. French Polynesia does that to you.

Paul Gauguin Has Indigenous Ambassadors Onboard

Les Gauguines teaching a Polynesian dance class on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Les Gauguines teaching a Polynesian dance class on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

One way that Paul Gauguin stands out is through its group of cultural ambassadors, Les Gauguines and Les Gauguins, who act as the activities staff and entertainment during your cruise. These indigenous Polynesians are omnipresent onboard, holding seminars on traditional dances and leading craft workshops while also spearheading more traditional cruise activities like bingo and trivia.

Where Les Gauguines and Les Gauguins really shine, though, is through their performances. We’ve seen two dance-based shows in the theater, as well as a more casual live music jam in the ship’s La Palette bar. All were fantastic and showcased the real ability that’s required, as opposed to being perfunctory.

 Typical cultural performances on their own, or simply once a cruise, can seem cheesy, or a sop by the cruise line to pay lip service to a destination. When your entire activities staff is indigenous to the area, it makes the experience more immersive and authentic. We’ve enjoyed talking to the troupe outside the shows, during our everyday interactions. It’s brought the island culture to life in a meaningful way.

Food Onboard Has Plenty of French and Polynesian Influences

Escargot on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Escargot on Paul Gauguin (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

As you might expect on a ship owned by a French line, the food leans toward the tastes of that country. Think sauces, baguettes, croissants and real French butter. The house wines offered at lunch and dinner are also generally French, a nice treat for oenophiles. Cheese offerings are exquisite and, for Americans, hard to find back home.

What I didn’t expect was how good it would all be, and how much Polynesian flavors would find their way into the mix. Among the ship’s three restaurants, fish has been the standout for most meals. The first captain’s gala showcased a local moonfish, carved before passengers a few hours before dinner. Le Grill has a Polynesian menu most nights, where you can try the ship’s renditions of poisson cru, pumpkin bisque, shellfish in a coconut ginger sauce or crème brulee flavored with Tahitian vanilla beans.

(Anecdotally, I spoke with guests who sailed on Paul Gauguin before the pandemic and Ponant’s ownership. They noted that the food was noticeable better under the new ownership.)

The Service Has Been Stellar

Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)
Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia (Photo: Chris Gray Faust)

Last but certainly not least, I need to give a shoutout to the Paul Gauguin crew. Many of my sailings in the past two years have come with asides from staff that hint at stressful conditions – more cabins to service for each steward, for example, or hints that make it seem like cutbacks have taken place.

That doesn’t seem to be the case on Paul Gauguin, at least not in a visible way. The waitstaff remember your name and how you take your coffee in the morning. Drinks are made with a wink and delivered with a flourish. It leads to a luxury experience that doesn’t take itself too seriously – and when you’re in French Polynesia, it’s exactly the right vibe.

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